Trust, flexibility and fear: adam&eveDDB’s Richard Brim on running creative teams

“It’s only advertising. We’re selling stuff to people. We’re not rock stars, we’re not doctors, we’re selling stuff to people in as fun and as engaging a way as possible.”

Richard Brim

Richard Brim, Chief Creative Officer at adam&eveDDB, has been among the creative leadership team at the agency for just over two years. Prior to that, as a creative at the agency, he wrote the John Lewis Monty the Penguin ad, one of a series of spots that has led the retail brand to be the most-watched marketer in the UK – and to an extent around the world – at Christmastime.

adam&eveDDB doesn’t just do John Lewis, however. It has delivered hit after hit in recent years, for brands as diverse as H&M, Waitrose and Harvey Nichols. If the agency has a stamp, it’s that its work is warm, engaging, and above all entertaining: traits that have led people to seek it out rather than try and skip it, surely the modern holy grail of advertising.

With these achievements in mind, you might think that Brim would perhaps be a little cocky – after all, advertising is an industry many easily associate with arrogance. Yet, in fact he’s all too aware of how quickly success in the business can be reversed, at times overnight.

“That’s my biggest fear,” he says. “That’s the fear I shoulder, and I would never pass that on. My biggest fear is that tomorrow it all goes completely tits up … that you’re riding the crest of that wave and all of a sudden it can come crashing down. If I’m honest, every year we’ve gone, ‘ok, this is the year it happens’ … and this year, I’m going ‘this is the year it happens’. But at the moment there’s really interesting work going through and we’re winning stuff going into next year.”

To mitigate the fear, Brim works on a year-by-year basis, focusing on what the agency will achieve annually, rather than looking too far into the future. “I find the yearly management thing a very, very good tool,” he says. “There’s no five-year plan, there’s no ten-year plan, you work year on year on year. You judge yourself on that.”

Part of this includes a quest to make sure that every member of his creative team – which consists of approximately 60 people, though this ebbs and flows with freelancers – gets to make at least one successful piece of work a year. “One of the things that I’ve tried to stick to, and it’s quite difficult, especially in an agency this size, is making sure that everybody finishes the year and they’re insanely proud of at least one piece of work…. It’s making sure everyone has a shot at the goal.”

And in a business where creative ideas and projects can increasingly feel a little eclectic and relevant only within the echo-chamber of the industry, Brim wants this pride to be around a piece of work that everyone will know of, a piece of “proper work” that is recognisable in the wider world. “I remember going home and telling people I’d done the John Lewis ad, I’d actually done the John Lewis ad, and people were like ‘oh my god’,” he explains. “I think a lot of our clients are big, famous clients.”

To achieve this for his teams requires a considerable amount of personal, individual involvement from Brim. “You curate people’s careers and you look after them, you make sure you listen to them,” he says. “The hardest thing for me is you’re privy to things you shouldn’t know about, in terms of personal stuff. You want everyone to just be happy and the hardest thing is realising that people actually aren’t and people are dealing with quite big stuff. So you just try and help them in however way you can and take it away from big corporations and make it a bit more human.

“It’s only advertising,” he continues. “We’re selling stuff to people. We’re not rock stars, we’re not doctors, we’re selling stuff to people in as fun and as engaging a way as possible. We’re just trying to have a bit of fun with a client.”

He is conscious, however, of the privileged position that adam&eveDDB occupy within the industry at present. “We’re an anomaly because we’re big and we’re very busy,” he says. “I talk from a very privileged position as we’re big and therefore we can accommodate everybody. We are winning business and we don’t have to get rid of people. At the moment, touch wood, it’s all a bit false. But what I’m learning is how to do it the best way I can, whilst the sun’s shining.”

Harvey Nichols Bo Gilbert
Harvey Nichols ad featuring Bo Gilbert, a model who was 100 at the time of its making

Brim tries to make himself accessible to the department, shunning the old cliché of the fearsome, unavailable creative boss. “Walking around and being visible and being accessible to people is so strong,” he says. “I remember as a creative getting face time with your creative director … it would always be at Christmas parties or places where you would say inappropriate things or get a bit drunk and think that your issue is the most important issue that this guy needs to know about. And this eliminates all that.”

He is also quick to acknowledge that he may not always know all the answers. “I had a creative director who I remember being in a really tricky meeting with, and he just got really angry and kicked us all out and told us, ‘you don’t come to me with problems, you come to me with solutions’. Because he couldn’t answer it. Whereas if he’d just turned round and gone, ‘hang on, I really don’t know what to say, this has really stumped me, but if we try, we can get out of that’. It’s not being afraid of not knowing what the answer is. On so many levels [it’s good to do that] – it shows your vulnerabilities, it shows you’re not this stupid robot, an all-seeing, all-dancing robot. But also it empowers people to go, ‘well, I think it could be this’.”

The agency regularly uses freelancers and Brim tries in general to be as flexible as possible in accommodating individual working needs, in order to help get to the best work. “Everybody works differently,” he says. “You can’t put a work routine on people – I want to empower the teams here to work in whichever way they want to. You have to, because everyone’s very, very different.

“I don’t care where the work comes from, I don’t care how it happens, and people have lives…. If you’re genuinely good, I don’t want to put a system on it. People need to know that I’m very open to that.”

When teams get stuck on a tricky problem, or are feeling uninspired, Brim will actively encourage them to leave the office. “I normally say go out,” he says of the creative block. “It’s the hardest thing, I don’t think there’s any secret weapon. The only thing I can think of is what I used to do, which is I didn’t come into the office. I’ll quite often sign people off for three days … and everybody has to deal with it.”

A common complaint for those who have climbed the creative career ladder is that they then feel detached from the work. Yet Brim has so far found that he has still been able to find that creative satisfaction and hands-on involvement, despite the responsibility that comes with being the CCO.

“I’m just as proud of the H&M Christmas ad, as I am of Monty,” he says. “Monty I wrote, H&M Christmas I creative directed. But wrote at the same time … there’s no real hierarchy here, everybody just mucks in and it just sort of happens. The whole credit thing annoys me terribly – I keep telling people not to worry about it, because credits come out in the wash. Good people will keep on doing it again and again and again so don’t worry about credits. Unless you’re not good.”

Perhaps the most important role that Brim plays as CCO though is bringing other people’s creative ideas to fruition. “The energy you have to put into making people’s ideas fly is so immense. You have to see something and you have to energise the team, who haven’t necessarily seen what you’ve seen. Then you have to get everybody on board.

“Making sure you drive things through the process,” he continues. “And having the power to get on the phone to a client and go, ‘you’re absolutely nuts if you don’t make this’. And building trust with clients, and making sure the environment is there for great work to be bought. I will call the client up directly and that is exactly what we should be doing, and they trust me.

“You’ve got to nurture that as well as nurturing your department – that’s your job. Your job is to make sure that the brilliance that they do gets to where it should go.”

Richard Brim is one of Creative Review’s Creative Leaders 50;

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